By Karabee Batta, January 6 2020—
Sometime in July this year, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared masks as an effective method to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Forgive me for not being very specific with the dates, as I, like most of you, have given up on following the generic conventions of time. Let’s all agree that this year was one long nightmarish month.
People had mixed reviews of the proposed use of masks. But sadly, it was not the latest Marvel flick that you could have your personal opinion on and happily go on about your day. The announcement about the benefits of mask-wearing came after a decent number of scientific findings and was backed by people who knew what they were talking about. The decorated credentials of CDC officials didn’t mean enough enough for people to start caring about wearing a basic face covering, let alone a medical mask.
It is understandable that in the first few months of such an unprecedented global crisis, not everyone had access to face masks and hand sanitizer. But as more and more countries started to come to terms with the scale and intensity of the virus, its high infection rate not helping the situation, domestic production of masks, sanitizer and other medical “essentials” was amped up. Fast forward to December 2020 and most countries either now require mandatory mask usage in indoor and outdoor public spaces or have set up bylaws enforcing the same. And the general consensus among the medical cognoscenti still holds: masks are the most effective way to limit contagion.
The masks, for many of us, have joined the ranks of our keys, wallets and phones — you never leave your house without them.
Mainly prominent in North America and some parts of Europe, government methods to contain the virus are facing pushback in the form of anti-mask protests. The anti-mask protesters allege that the requirement to wear a mask at all times in public spaces is a threat to their freedom and a violation of their civil rights.
The mask, although still primarily a face covering and a means of protecting us from becoming infected with, and subsequently dying from COVID-19, has now also become a cultural icon. Just like during the SARS crisis, wearing a mask symbolises protecting oneself and others around you, instilling a sense of fulfilment of one’s social duties. You are not just reducing your risk of contracting an infection from others by wearing a mask, you are also preventing others from contracting it from you, if you happen to be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. Even if it’s not the coronavirus, wearing a mask still helps limit transmission of other airborne disease vectors, especially to the immunocompromised population.
Like most cultural movements, it has a certain demographic trend. Most anti-maskers are white (and privileged). When the best explanation you can come up with for not wearing a face-covering in the time of a substantially infectious pandemic is “I can’t breathe in a mask, so I choose to not wear a mask,” it directly implies “My comfort should be of utmost importance and I expect you to make adjustments that suit me.”
I CAN’T BREATHE. Eric Garner yelled these in 2014 before he was killed by the NYPD. Very recently, these words unfortunately became popularised again, when George Floyd said these same words while being pinned down by a white police officer in Minnesota, and ultimately succumbing to lack of oxygen.
Since then the phrase has served as a cry for justice for the Black community around the world. Unfortunately, the phrase has also become one of the most chanted slogans at the anti-mask protests. The thought of protesting a scientifically-proven measure is already absurd, but attempting to compare the “discomfort” of having to wear a mask when in public spaces reeks of privilege — unearned privilege. Black people struggle to breathe every day.
Systemic racism aside, studies show that Black communities have significantly lesser access to quality resources and education to increase their quality of life. A study undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 stated that people of colour are exposed to 1.5 times the amount of particulate matter an average white person would be exposed to. That is environmental racism. In North America particularly, the Black community is over-represented in “essential workforces.” It unfortunately means that during the pandemic, more Black people do not have the luxury of working from home and avoiding the virus.
A lot of studies depict a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on different ethnicities, but the truth is racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people — even when insurance status, income, age and severity of conditions are comparable, as stated by a study by the National Academy of Medicine.
The set of people protesting mandates to wear masks not surprisingly seems to overlap to a great extent with the individuals who would be all too eager to correct “Black lives matter” to “all lives matter.” The dual infections of COVID-19 and racism are deep-rooted in white privilege.
It’s not just the Black community that has been at the receiving end of white privilege. Asians have been blamed very frequently as pandemic starters. Trump’s stubbornness in consistently referring to the pandemic as the Chinese virus is of little help. The last few months have seen an increase in anti-Asian hate crime in Canada.
The recently-approved Bill 21 in Quebec outlaws wearing any religious symbols in public. Muslim women who wear the niqab even under claims of using it as a face covering, as mandated by the government, fear arrest or fines. The COVID-19 mask is a barrier to transmission of the virus while the niqab is a barrier to social inclusion.
The mere act of covering one’s face has numerous cultural and societal connotations associated with it. Not having to think and fear what others might think or do when you wear a mask is absolutely an unearned privilege.
An image of nurses holding off anti-mask protesters during their break time in New York went viral on Twitter last month. Healthcare workers are exhausted as hospitals get inundated with new cases every day. They are forced to work multiple shifts in a row because the healthcare system is under severe stress. We should not dare to have the audacity to question their efforts, to increase their workload, or to decimate their faith in humanity all because we are asked to put on a basic face covering when in public.
Recently, the organizers of an anti-mask rally in Calgary were charged for breaching public health orders. It was not the first, and it might not be the last.
Asians can’t be at peace when they are at the receiving end of the “who-started-the-pandemic” commentary. Muslim women don’t feel at ease when they can’t express their religious choices freely. Black people can’t breathe when an inherently broken system shackles them, they can’t breathe when they are exposed to more unforgiving living conditions.
But the others CAN breathe, even with a mask on. Give this a thought next time you feel like not wearing a mask in public while coronavirus rages on, not the least bothered by your indifference.
Stay safe and wear a mask.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.